He may have just purchased the largest-ever truffle grown in Australia, but chef Robin Murray is planning to keep his first dish pretty simple: scrambled eggs on brioche.
"I like to let truffle speak for itself," he says.
This afternoon Murray will get his hands on the 1.172-kilogram black Perigord truffle, harvested at Yelverton Truffles in the NSW Southern Highlands late last week. Murray did not want to say exactly how much he paid for the tasty fungi, but confirmed it was in the range of $2000 to $2500.
The enormous specimen is just 128 grams shy of the current world record, a 1.3kg truffle grown in France. Australia's previous record-holder tipped the scales at 1.084kg in 2010.
Grower Ted Smith says he did not even require the services of his trusty truffle hound to locate the record-breaking truffle. Rather, he noticed a small mound of earth on his truffle property at Robertson a few weeks ago and had just been "keeping an eye on it".
"Some truffles pop through the surface. You monitor it regularly by eye-balling it and smelling it...I thought this one was going to be a decent size when I first got down to it, but it was just the tip of the iceberg. I had to excavate quite a large hole."
The truffle was so big that Smith and his wife Barbara had to take it to their local post office to weigh it because their domestic scales have a one-kilogram limit.
Ted Smith says he received interest in the record truffle from right across Australia and from one interested Asian buyer but decided he wanted to allow locals to savour it. He sold the truffle to Robin Murray of Bowral's Centennial Vineyards Restaurant, for a little less than his original asking price of $2500. "It could have fetched quite a bit more in the Asian market, but we liked the idea of it being grown here, bought here and consumed here [in the southern highlands]," Smith said.
The Smiths have been harvesting truffles for three years and have 320 truffle-inoculated oaks on their 75-acre property. The couple took up truffle growing following their retirement after investigating options including saffron, wasabi and medicinal herbs.
"This area is actually prime potato-growing land which is what made me think of truffles," Ted Smith explained. "The soil is very rich and friable, though I have had to load it up with lots of lime to kill the acidity."
He has already harvested truffles in the 400-700 gram range this winter, and expects this season's harvest to be quadruple the size of last season's.
The Australian truffle industry has come a long way since Tasmanian Tim Terry harvested the first locally-grown black truffle in 1999. Australia is now the world's fourth largest black truffle producer behind Spain, France and Italy according to the Australian Truffle Growers' Association. While the majority of growers operate small, hobby-style farms there are now more than 160 commercial growers. About one half of Australia's commercial crop are grown in the south-west region of Western Australia.
Speaking from his farm in Tasmania, Tim Terry described the Smiths' record truffle "as a freak of nature". Terry, who planted Australia's first truffle inoculated oaks in northern Tasmania in 1993 and who bred the trees used on the Smiths' farm, said conditions had to be "absolutely perfect" to encourage such growth. "It's about the microbes in the soil, the condition of the soil and having the perfect amount of water also." Terry said he had been deliberately selecting breeding stock to "hopefully produce larger truffles" although he said this may have had nothing to do with the Smiths' record-breaking specimen.
Terry said big truffles were not necessarily a good thing for commercial growers, because while size does not affect flavour, larger truffles were seen as risky by many chefs and buyers.
"It might have grown around a pebble and have some rot inside... The ideal (commercial) size is about 50 to 100 grams. A chef would rather get 10 truffles at 100 grams than a 1kg truffle. At the smaller size you can feel it, squeeze it - you know what you've got".
When Terry found his largest truffle - about 750 grams – a couple of years ago, he immediately cut it into smaller pieces for sale. However Terry said the Smiths' giant truffle was great news for the local industry and would help publicise Australian truffles overseas.
Colin Carter, president of the Australian Truffle Growers' Association said commercial Australia growers produced about eight tonnes of black truffle in 2013. He said more than half of this was sold and consumed within Australia, but that the ATGA was working towards expanding export markets.
Chef Robin Murray is planning to use the truffle on the Centennial Vineyards menu in many traditional, French-style dishes over the next two-to-four weeks. Individuals can also purchase pieces of the record-breaking truffle for about $25 for 10 grams by contacting the restaurant.
"We'll do many daily specials such as omelette, mushroom risotto and we'll grate the truffle finely and bake it under a layer of pastry in a French onion soup," he said.
Murray said he was also planning to infuse honey and salt with the truffle to be used in desserts and other dishes for the remainder of the year. The chef said truffle was best eaten in simple dishes and revealed the secret to making good truffle scrambled eggs was to "whiz the eggs, grated truffle, salt, pepper and splash of cream up in a milkshake machine".